Centuries old Spanish play given fresh life – and leaves a chilling warning

Shayne de Groot in costume in "Fuente Ovejuna!". Photo: Clare Hawley/supplied.

Review: Fuente Ovejuna! at the Flight Path Theatre, Marrickville. By editor-at-large Gary Nunn.

★★★ 1/2

“Be grateful women want justice, not revenge.”

So read one of the placards at a Women’s March 4 Justice event last month, following allegations of sexual misconduct, harrassment and rape of Australian women in politics.

These words echoed loudly throughout this impressively original and creative production of Fuente Ovejuna! – a reworking of a 1619 classic by Spanish playwright Lope de Vega. 

A mob of aggrieved peasants, led by one woman who’d had enough of being objectified, sexually harassed and raped, revolt against the elites who’d abused their power to bypass consent, basic decency and the law. It’s based on a true incident from 1476. It’s depressingly outrageous that, 545 years later, it’s still happening to women. 

Presciently enough, this production was postponed till this month after the Covid-19 outbreak closed closed Marrickville’s Flight Path Theatre last year. It now finds itself back in fine form with this unique, enlivening and inventive production that lingers long after you see it. 

Just as something is rotten in the territory of Canberra, something was rotten in the territory of Castile: a commander sent by the monarchy ruled with an iron first and disdain for the farmers and peasants; particularly the female ones. His misogyny plays out in constant threats and acts of sexual violence against women, including rape. 

We meet the inhabitants of Fuente Ovejuna, a small village, and we’re endeared to them instantly. Some are illiterate, others are drunks, but all seem to band together against the evils and abuses regularly enacted by the commander and more broadly, the distant, aloof rich elite who rule over them. 

An early feminist theme is set when friends Laurencia and Pascuala gift us their easy repartee. They’re sardonic about the paradox of women being slut-shamed yet also expected to be virgins. Watching the sisterhood between these two characters – superbly played by Lucinda Howes and Madeleine Withington – strengthen and expand to other female cast members as the play progresses is endorphin-inducingly gratifying. 

The women verbally spar with the male peasants who, with none of the social breeding or etiquette of the elites, treat their fellow female villagers as comrades. Special mention to Davey Seagle and Tristan Black as, respectively, the lovestruck Fondoso and the endearingly insipid Mengo – who show this respect in a way that feels authentic rather than perfunctory.

Things pivot sensationally in the second half. After village mayor Esteban fails to protect daughter Laurencia from being taken by the commander and his men, who attempt to rape her, the failings of the male villagers are laid bare. In a spirited, tubthumping speech, Laurencia charges them with failing to protect her, prioritising their own interests over her one concern: not being raped by predators. In an unrelenting yet polished performance, Howes absorbs every bit of energy in this small space to tell men: it’s not enough to just be respectful; unless they call out and prevent violent misogyny, they’re complicit.

It resonates, and the men transform their shame into action, seeking to hunt down and kill the offending commander. But Laurencia and her growing sisterhood aren’t about to let men own this honour then appoint themselves heroes; it’s they who together relinquish the idea of a leader and form a female alliance hell-bent on retribution.

Davey Seagle (left) and James Bean in Fuente Ovejuna! Photo: Clare Hawley/supplied.

When, even under torture, villagers – including the endearingly scared Mengo – refuse to confess who killed the commander, their repeated response reclaims the follow-the herd mentality of sheep as a strength rather than weakness. “Fuente Ovejuna did it,” they bleat, a communal solidarity that shows strength in numbers can thrive in a leaderless revolution.

So many bold flourishes make this production thoroughly original and creative. Whilst it borrows from the (then contemporary) Shakespearean traditions of Kings, Queens, barbarous and bloody battles, and some iambic pentameter verse and elegant rhyming couplets, it also subverts them: here, the peasants’ point of view is the dominant and sympathetic one, not the monarch’s. The verse is comically witty. The ludicrous inherited power of the inept monarchy is skewered by portraying them as glorious, grotesque, giant Picasso-like puppets. The satire here is genuinely funny – one of several counterintuitive laugh out loud moments – especially in the hilarious cartoon-like reaction faces of Shayne de Groot. Give that woman a comedy show! Julia Christensen plays Flores with a startling versatility – she has you in stitches one minute and afraid the next; a tour-de-force.

Battle scenes are kinetic yet bombastic, but enhanced by Jas Borsovszky’s lighting design. They’re timed well when this slightly long production falls into a lull.

Some of the bold risks are perhaps too bold – the decision to have the Commander played by a different character in each scene was clever and creative but traded off on clarity – despite the comic-style baddy masks he wears, I was confused a couple of times over who was who.

The decision to have a two piece live Spanish style band punctuating the play pays off marvellously, adding to the overall unique style. 

Director Angus Evans, disappointed with the original play’s ending, has taken the – some might say audacious, others might say unnecessary – risk of writing a new one to make it feel more timely to recent events including climate change action, the recent women’s Marches 4 Justice and other recent global protests where everyday people rose up against the corruptions of the privileged.

We see, through this version, what it would look like if women did seek revenge instead of justice. Scott Morrison, from the safety he enjoys as a man in Parliament House, suggested women should be grateful they’re not being met with bullets on their march for justice. Here’s what it’d look like if those bullets turned on the power-holders who’ve enabled the rot to fester.

It should send shivers down Scott Morrison’s spine – if he ever grows one. 

Tristan Black (left) and Madeleine Withington in Fuente Ovejuna! Photo: Clare Hawley/supplied.

Fuente Ovejuna! plays the Flight Path Theatre, Addison Road Community Centre, 142 Addison Road, Marrickville until Sunday, April 11. For tickets ($25–$35) and further info, visit www.flightpaththeatre.org/whats-on/fuente-ovejuna.

Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.